Columbia police weigh in on debate over police use of force

Related Story

COLUMBIA - The use of force in law enforcement is at the forefront of debate lately and KOMU 8 News talked to Columbia police about department policies and training procedures.

"When officers use any type of force, it is a response to resistance," said Lt. Geoffrey Jones, the training and recruiting officer for the Columbia Police Department. "Officers have to take into account the totality of the circumstances with the information that they have."

Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday, "The Justice Department is working with major police associations to conduct a broad review of policing tactics, techniques, and training."

Statistically, a relatively small percent of police-civilian interactions result in any force, but sometimes the situation becomes more complicated. A Justice Department survey in 2011 found fewer than 5 percent of the people who had involuntary contact with police filed a formal complaint about police behavior.

When either military or police have to react due to an increased threat to themselves or others, it is known as an escalation of force. Jones said this can be as simple as an officer raising his or her voice over the other person, or it can be as extreme as that same officer drawing his or her weapon and shooting at the person. He said it is all dependant on the person in question.

Both law enforcement and the military have similar rules and levels of engagement. The range and scope of force used is entirely subject to the situation the officer and suspect find themselves in, and the level of reaction officers use, according to Jones, is the level needed to control the situation.

The National Institute of Justice outlines the Use-of-Force Continuum which it defines "use of force" as the "amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject," with actions ranging from having an officer present at the scene up to the use of deadly force by the officer.

In order for an officer to justifiably use deadly force, the officer would have to believe the suspect posed a serious and credible danger to himself or others with the ability to cause serious bodily harm.

"I do not want to have to shoot somebody, but ultimately the force decision is up to the suspect," said Adam Duncan, the primary instructor at the Law Enforcement Training Institute in Columbia, "What I would like for them to do is comply with my commands and they're under arrest and nobody gets hurt."

Even though there are set levels of force and usually they must be adhered to in order, Duncan said it is entirely up to the suspect what level of force the officer should use. For example, if the suspect is armed with a handgun, the officer doesn't need to go through all of the levels of force and can go directly to the use of deadly force. Officers are justified in certain uses of force, even if after the situation is resolved that it was found to be unnecessary.

"It's based on the totality of the circumstances, based on what I know about the subject, what I know about the situation, what their behavior is what their demeanor is, the time of day, my own physical skills, my prior knowledge of them, all of those things makes up what I call the totality of the circumstances," Duncan said, "So absolutely, I may jump to into a higher level of force based on what I observe in that situation."

For example, if an officer confronts a suspect with a gun and the suspect is waving it around and pointing it at other people, protocol says the officer has the legal right to use deadly force, even if after the suspect is put down, the officer discovers that the weapon was not loaded.

"An officer can't assume anything," Jones said.

In order to control a situation, law enforcement are supposed to use the current level of force the suspect is using except one level higher. In this case, if a suspect were to be threatening a person, including the officer, with something like knife or longer bladed weapon, then the officer has the right to escalate to deadly force if the suspect is close enough to cause serious bodily injury or death to another person. The distance taught by law enforcement is within 20 feet, and the reason for that is because the suspect can travel 20 feet in a very short amount of time.

"There were times where I had to elevate to higher levels of force, and I didn't know if I'd stop the threat, and I didn't know if I'd make it home," Jones said.

Duncan said he has never had to actually fire his weapon at anyone. It is quite the rare occurrence statistically. According to reports by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008, more than 40 million people had some kind of contact with law enforcement. Out of all of the contacts, 629 of them ended in the suspect's death. Of those, 404 were killed by law enforcement and 76 committed suicide. So in 2008, this adds up to one in nearly every 100,000 contact with law enforcement ended in the suspect's death. 

(See graphic below).


According to Jones and Duncan, the best way to avoid problems with the police is to be cooperative, or at least non-combative, when being questioned as a suspect or involved party to an incident. The key thing to keep in mind they say, is that police are doing a job; providing a public service, but the law gives them certain rights when they feel they or someone else is in danger, so the best policy is to not give the police reason to think that way.